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Friday
Mar192010

Repo Men

There's something avant-garde about Repo Men. It's not experimental or even particularly unique (Repo! The Genetic Opera tackled the same subject matter back in 2008), but it pushes the boundaries in that it's one of the only movies to gross me out to the point where I wanted to look away from the screen. It's like a disgusting, bloody My Winnipeg.

Set sometime in the near future, when Fast and the Furious X is about to be released, a company called The Union has emerged offering artificial organs to those in need of them. They can easily be bought with credit, yet the payments are so high that most who buy them cannot afford them. After a period of non-payments, a repo man is sent to take the organ back, thus killing the person in the process. Remy (Jude Law) is the best repo man in the business, but after a faulty defibrillator backfires on him, he is forced to sign his own contract on an artificial heart. However, he begins to realize that what he is doing is wrong and refuses to harvest any more organs. Without a job and no money flowing in, he begins to fall behind on his payments and is forced to go on the run with fellow artificial organ owner Beth (Alice Braga) while his former partner Jake (Forest Whitaker) hunts him down.

Repo Men is a movie that, as bloody as it is, seems like it wants to make a point. Similar to how last year's Saw VI made a statement on health care, Repo Men attempts to say something about financial corporations, loans and the debt they're practically forcing upon people, but it doesn't quite come through.

Part of the reason is because the film is as silly as they come. Although it does have a few tonal problems, making strange transitions from comedy to seriousness, the laughs always overpower its otherwise morbid spirit. While the more dramatic scenes, like one where Remy finds himself standing in the middle of a wasteland of dead bodies, don't work, the rest do in a sort of B-movie way. Nobody will sit through this and claim it as quality work, but many will still walk out with a strange appreciation for it.

On the other hand, many will find it revolting and end up hating it. It's a justifiable reaction because Repo Men is beyond violent. With so many scenes featuring repo men cutting into flesh and removing their victim's innards, it can, at times, be hard to find pleasure in it. In fact, I found none in the first act of the movie. Before Remy has his accident, you follow him and Jake around as they mercilessly kill the poor and innocent, never taking into account that their victims could be fathers, sons or brothers. But as the film goes on, the characters take a redemptive path and begin to right their wrongs. Sure, it doesn't quite make up for the assumable thousands of murders before it, but hey, nobody's perfect.

There's nothing to gather from Repo Men. There's no clear message. There's barely a story. There isn't any real reason for it to exist. It's incredibly stupid and the ending is a giant cop out, but I must admit, I had a good deal of fun with it. It may not be for everybody, but for me, it's the biggest guilty pleasure of 2010.

Repo Men receives 3/5

Friday
Mar122010

She's Out of My League

My father once told me of a game he used to play with my uncle before I was born. Every year, my family would head to the beach and my dad would sit with beer in hand and rate passing women on their looks. He used a scale of 1-10 and would debate with my uncle over who was the best looking. My dad never was the classy type.

She’s Out of My League deconstructs this game, though perhaps “deconstruct” is not the right word, as that would imply the film has an air of intelligence around it. It does not.

You see, Kirk, played by Jay Baruchel, is a five. He is a lanky, skinny, nerdy type of guy that looks at a beautiful girl and immediately dismisses his chances with her. That is until Molly, played by the beautiful Alice Eve, accidentally stumbles into his life. She is, as his friends put it, “a hard 10,” and we all know a 10 like her could never find love with a five. Kirk is already pessimistic and self-conscious of himself and his friends only play into those fears, which could end up ruining his relationship with Alice.

There might not be much to recommend here, but I can say this. She’s Out of My League gives hope to all of the fives of the world. It tells them that they are tens in the eyes of the one that loves them, which is a nice change of pace regardless of how cheesy that message is. However, it also says that all men are womanizing meatheads that cannot function normally when a pretty girl is around.

When Molly walks in a room, every male in sight goes googly eyed and ogles her like a Thanksgiving turkey. While the actress certainly is a gorgeous woman, as a man, I found it kind of insulting that the movie insinuates our general lack of control when pretty women are around, suggesting that we have two heads and aren’t using the one with a brain in it.

Nevertheless, whatever analogous analyzation I may be finding here should be overshadowed by laughs. Unfortunately, this thing rarely elicits much from its tired premise. While Baruchel has been likable as a supporting role in movies such as Knocked Up and Tropic Thunder, he isn't much of a leading man. He's hardly compelling and his nasally voice eventually proves grating on the nerves. It’s tough not to feel sympathy for his pathetic character, seeing as how, let’s face it, the majority of us are fives like him, but he doesn’t have enough charisma to work this movie through to its conclusion.

With contrived attempts at creating drama and the only laughs coming from a character nicknamed Stainer, who adopted the moniker due to his weak bladder as a child, She’s Out of My League is little more than another run-of-the-mill teen comedy that lives in a world where beautiful women actually look on the inside before they see the stained teeth, puss filled pimples and giant gut on the outside. What a world that must be.

She's Out of My League receives 1.5/5

Friday
Mar122010

Green Zone

I have a philosophy of not judging movies based on what they're about. Whether I agree or disagree with the subject matter, I try to look at it on its own artistic merit. With that said, I'm only human and am naturally drawn to things that reinforce my beliefs. But sometimes, a movie arrives too late to the party to have any real significance and I find myself distanced from the message despite my agreeance with it. Such is the case with Green Zone.

The film takes place in the early days of the Iraq war, in March of 2003. Matt Damon plays Miller, a soldier in charge of finding weapons of mass destruction. Despite the intel that tells them where to go, he and his squad have come up empty handed multiple times. He begins to get frustrated going on these wild goose chases that are putting him and his men in danger only to find nothing, so he confronts Clark Poundstone, played by Greg Kinnear, head of Pentagon Special Intelligence, who assures him that the weapons are indeed out there and they will find them. Nevertheless, something seems fishy and he begins to suspect the war in Iraq was started unjustifiably. With the help of CIA chief Brown, played by Brendan Gleeson, he hopes to uncover the true reason he is there.

Iraq war movies are no strangers to the film community. Stop Loss, In the Valley of Elah, and the recent Best Picture Oscar winner The Hurt Locker all have explored the war in different ways, some delving into the manipulative ways our government can keep our soldiers active despite their military term ending while others have explored the affects war has on those fighting. They are focused, meaningful and bring up important issues that the public may not be aware about. Green Zone is the opposite. It's a two hour Bush bash with the oft-heard message, "America entered into Iraq on false pretenses," thanks to our inability to find WMD's. Anyone familiar with the goings-on of the world already knows we were unable to find the weapons, so this becomes little more than an exercise in the blame game that tries to remind us how we got involved to begin with. I feel much about this the way I did about the economic downturn. Some blamed President Clinton, some blamed President Bush, but whose fault it was seemed unnecessary to me. Let's just fix it.

The message, however important it may be, is too late to the game. Had this been released three or four years ago, its impact would be hard to ignore, but now it seems like a childish indictment of a man many conservatives have even come to dislike. It is necessary to know how we got to Iraq, what mistakes we made along the way and how we can avoid them in the future, but dwelling on how we got there isn't as important right now as focusing on how to get out.

Director Paul Greengrass, the man behind The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, directs this in a similar style, the nauseating 'can-you-not-hold-still-for-one-second?' shaky cam style. As solid as his film's are, he has a tendency to go a little overboard with it and by the end, I was queasy and my head was pounding. It felt like somebody had been chipping away at my skull with a chisel for two hours. There's a fine line between using the shaky cam technique for realism and overdoing it to the point where you remind your audience they're watching a movie. When you cut to a man typing at a computer and the camera is still shaking back and forth like its mounted on somebody's shoulder, it's doing the opposite of its intended purpose.

I have many a problem with Green Zone, but in the end I'm still going to give it my seal of approval. Regardless of its relentless shakes and the message arriving a few years too late, it's often exciting, always entertaining and Matt Damon, as usual, is rock solid as the lead, giving another award worthy performance. Unfortunately, it's too worried about further crippling Bush's reputation to be bothered with saying something relevant.

Green Zone receives 2.5/5

Friday
Mar052010

Brooklyn's Finest

It's been eight years since director Antoine Fuqua brought us Training Day, the gritty crime drama that netted Denzel Washington his second Oscar. In between that terrific film, he has helmed a few pictures that have been hit and miss among fans and critics, Tears of the Sun and Shooter among them. Now it seems as if he's trying to strike gold twice with Brooklyn's Finest, which can only be described as Training Day-lite. While this movie deals with some similar issues (and even goes so far as to cast Denzel's counterpart in that film, Ethan Hawke), it's unfocused, meandering and it tries to justify evil if the end result is good, which I would hope any moral, upstanding citizen could see the hypocrisy in.

The film follows a number of cops as they deal with crime in Brooklyn. Hawke plays Sal, a dirty cop trying to pay for a new home for his family, Richard Gere plays Eddie, a suicidal police officer only a week away from retirement, and Don Cheadle plays Tango, an undercover cop who finds himself struggling with his allegiance because he has a duty to bring down the bad guys, but one of those bad men by the name of Caz, played by Wesley Snipes, previously saved his life and he refuses to bust him. A dirty cop, an undercover cop and a cop one week away from retirement. It's three cliches rolled into one.

The three stories do intersect at times, however rarely that may be, but I suspect the physical intersections are not the crutch of the movie, but rather the way each character's emotions get in the way of their true goals. In that regard, they all find themselves in the same boat, yet their stories play out so differently that that argument would be hard to make.

The most irksome part of Brooklyn's Finest, however, is its portrayal of these men as good men despite the evil things they have done or, in some cases, are doing. As previously mentioned, Sal can't afford a new home for his family. He has a wife and a couple of children and twins are on the way. The house they live in is encompassed with rotting wood and his wife's lungs are working three times the amount they should be due to her asthma and her breathing in mold. He needs to get them out of there. I understood this hardship and I felt for him, but the way he gets things done is inexcusable. He murders drug runners and steals their money. The film tries to make the case that there's nothing else this man can do and besides, he's killing bad guys so it's ok, right?

Eddie, on the other hand, is a cop who turns the other way when bad things go down. Early in the movie, he's on patrol with a rookie cop and the young man tries to break up a dispute between a feuding couple after the man slaps the woman. This is the right thing to do, but Eddie pulls him away and they drive off. He tells him to think nothing of it and just go home. Of course, Eddie has a change of heart by the end of the movie, but one good action does not forgive his years of neglection.

This happens with damn near every character. The film puts them on a pedestal and tries to rationalize their way of being. It doesn't work and instead of feeling for the hardships these characters are going through, I ended up loathing them all. None deserved my sympathy.

I suppose Brooklyn's Finest is technically a well made film. Fuqua directs it competently and the performances, though hit and miss at times, are far from bad, but its the twisted vindication the picture gives each character that really derails it. It tries to ask questions about what is considered right and wrong, but what's right and wrong doesn't change simply because the situation you're in calls for it to. Wrong is wrong no matter the predicament.

Brooklyn's Finest receives 2/5

Friday
Mar052010

Alice in Wonderland

When director Tim Burton and Golden Globe award winner Johnny Depp team up for a film, the result is always magical. From 1990's Edward Scissorhands to the 2007 masterpiece Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the two have been more or less successful in every picture they've made together. Now uniting again for the seventh time, Depp and Burton have created an enchanting tale in Alice in Wonderland. Working more as a sequel to the title story (following the 1951 Disney animated feature closer than any other) rather than another iteration in itself, the film creates a fantastical world that feels alive and is brimming with imagination. It is a must see.

The film begins in the real world with Alice as a young girl (played by Mairi Ella Challen at this age). She tells her father that she thinks she's going mad because of a recurring dream she is having, but he tells her that some of the best people are mad. Flash forward thirteen years later and Alice is a young adult (played by Mia Wasikowska) and on her way to a party where she is asked for her hand in marriage by a gentleman she does not love. As he asks her, in front of seemingly hundreds of people no less, she spots a white rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen) and she chases after it, only to fall down a hole into Wonderland. She quickly meets a colorful cast of characters including Tweedledee and Tweedledum (both played by Matt Lucas), Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry), and of course, the Mad Hatter (played by Johnny Depp). She swears she's never been there before despite their insistence that she has. They believe she has come back to stop the evil Red Queen (played by Helena Bonham Carter) and take down her jabberwocky, a giant mythical beast, thus giving power of the land back to her sister, the kind White Queen (played by Anne Hathaway).

Alice in Wonderland is a timeless story and no matter whether you've read its source material, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," or seen one of the dozens of adaptations of it (including a 1976 porn version that, unfortunately, I've yet to get my hands on), you should be familiar with the gist of it, but you've never seen it like this. Alice's trip down the rabbit hole begins much like it usually does, with Alice growing taller and shrinking smaller before finally making it through the tiny door too little for her to crawl through, but Burton takes the rest of the film down a completely different path, one met with an unabashed amount of wonderment and a strong sense of peril, two things its previous Disney counterpart was missing.

That 1951 animated movie looked good, but was bogged down by poor musical numbers and a story that went nowhere. Alice's adventure never took a deeper meaning other than her desire to live in a more illusory world where she wouldn't succumb to boredom. This modern update--or more accurately labeled sequel--thankfully does more and you do feel like Alice has a purpose in this world. (Not to mention it does away with the singing.)

Still, I will admit that much like previous iterations, the story isn't as interesting as simply looking at the lush visuals on display. You may brush the story off as nonsense, but you'll still sit there in bewilderment at the film's artistry. It's bedazzling in a way that makes you feel like a kid again because the world you're looking at could only be realized by someone with a childlike sensibility, of which Burton, however dark it may be, has in spades. Every frame fills each corner of the screen with something remarkable to look at and the 3D makes it pop. The extra dimension gives added depth to an already stunning landscape, rarely resorting to the annoying things-flying-at-your-face gimmick too many 3D films employ.

Each character in the movie is wonderfully well rounded with distinct personalities and Burton juggles them perfectly, giving you enough time to meet and like (or hate) them. Depp, as great as an actor as he is, does not overpower the film because he's working with solid material (unlike Public Enemies where he was forced to work with mediocrity) and the actors around him do more than a capable job of playing against him. Wasikowska, who plays the titular character, does a particularly excellent job in her first starring role. I see big things on her horizon and much how Edward Scissorhands catapulted Depp into the spotlight, I expect Wasikowska to start gaining exposure after her star turn in this.

As better as this is when compared to the 1951 Disney animated version, it could have followed its footsteps in one regard. In that film, Alice quickly lands in Wonderland and when she finds her way out, the movie ends almost immediately. It never bothers with real world back story. This does a bit too much. I could have done without the real world affairs and found the whole engagement story to be a distraction. Although I like how she relates the people she knows in the real world to the zany creatures in Wonderland, it adds nothing in the way of depth.

That quibble aside, Alice in Wonderland is a real treat and will best be enjoyed by those still with the ability to dream and believe in the impossible.

Alice in Wonderland receives 4.5/5